It’s usually best to define something in terms of other things that your audience understands. In the case of Roon, that’s neither easy nor particularly helpful because there’s nothing quite like Roon. Rather than attempting to define it, let’s discuss what Roon is used for. This article will help you to approach Roon with appropriate expectations.
“…an interactive experience of a real-world environment where the objects that reside in the real world are enhanced by computer-generated perceptual information, sometimes across multiple sensory modalities…” – Wikipedia.
Roon’s flagship feature is an enhanced presentation of your digital music library, enriched with hyperlinked metadata, beautiful album art, lyrics, credits, reviews, artist bios, concert dates, and more. An “augmented reality” metadata overlay is what well over a hundred thousand Roon subscribers are paying for, and it’s Roon’s primary value proposition. This concept and its implications should be your main takeaway from this article.
Real world digital music libraries are typically collections of folders, sub-folders, and files scattered across multiple computers and drives. If present, embedded metadata may only be viewed statically. Navigating such libraries is like reading spreadsheets. At best, you’re scrolling through thousands of album cover icons, hoping to find something worth your time to play. As a result, you tend to play the same things over and over again. Sound familiar?
The designers of Roon were discontent with the spreadsheet paradigm for exploring digital music, so they set out to create a rich experience that encourages discovery and is more akin to handling physical media. They would have to solve two extraordinarily difficult problems to achieve this goal. The first was creating a cloud database with high-quality album art, plus licensed and crowd-sourced metadata for all the world’s music. This task will never be finished, but Roon Labs is making tremendous progress.
The second problem was identifying all tracks in each subscriber’s music library, matching them to records in that cloud database. Roon presents successfully identified tracks and albums with the best quality album art, reviews, lyrics, and detailed, hyperlinked credits, overriding incomplete or inaccurate metadata embedded in the files. Identifying every track is an impossible task, but subscribers who take the time to help the process along will have a richer experience with Roon.
Roon makes no changes to the files in your library. Yet, the view it presents is greatly enhanced with licensed and crowd-sourced metadata, creating a fresh and engaging experience that inspires music exploration and discovery.
Two Streaming Services
In addition to managing your library of files, Roon is used as a frontend for the TIDAL and Qobuz streaming services. Both provide free apps for navigating their music catalogs. So, what value does Roon add? Quite a lot, it turns out. Their catalogs are immense, with over seventy million tracks each; the tyranny of choice can be overwhelming. But as you expand your library with favorites from these services, Roon learns your preferences. Over time, Roon makes increasingly helpful recommendations based on your listening habits, enabling you to mine these massive catalogs for precious veins of content that you’ll enjoy. Roon treats the albums you add to your library from streaming services the same way it does local files, enriching them with its cloud metadata.
Your local library and streaming favorites create powerful jumping-off points to find new music. For example, Doug Sax was an extremely talented mastering engineer. Any album that he worked on will almost certainly sound fantastic. You won’t find mastering credits in iTunes or streaming apps, but this information is present for most albums in Roon’s cloud database. According to Roon, Doug Sax mastered 74 of the 2,350 albums in my music library. Not surprisingly, they are among my favorites. Naturally, I’d like to discover more albums that he mastered, and Roon makes this possible. When I click on “Doug Sax” under album credits, Roon reveals 1,091 albums mastered by him on TIDAL, sorted by popularity and ready for me to explore.
The same approach works for your favorite bass player or composer. Be aware that Roon makes no guarantees that their cloud database is 100% accurate or complete. Again, this is an impossible task for all of the world’s music. But the database is constantly improving, and what is there will enable you to discover music and artists in ways that were not possible before Roon.
One Library, One Environment
A Roon subscription is used to manage a single music library at a single physical location. Although this may change, for now, Roon’s domain is limited to one local area network, typically at your primary place of residence. Roon’s device discovery protocols do not traverse router interfaces, or in plain English, you generally can’t take Roon with you in the car, public transportation, on vacation, or to the office.
Each member of your household may create a Roon profile. Doing so is a good idea because it allows each person to have their own playback history, tags, playlists, and recommendations. However, if your streaming subscription is a family plan, keep in mind that you must choose one member’s streaming account to link with your Roon library. For example, I have to scroll through pages of my wife’s favorite Beegie Adair albums to find my Steely Dan and Infected Mushroom collections. We use personal tags to mitigate the issue. While helpful, creating tags requires discipline as albums are not automatically tagged to the profile of the person who added them. The same principle applies to music purchases from download services and CD rips.
One Interface, Three Presentations
Roon’s user interface is an OpenGL masterpiece that scales both in size and functionality to fit the device on which it runs. Call it responsive design, if you like. The presentation style across smartphones, tablets, and computers is consistent, regardless of the underlying operating system (a remarkable achievement).
Still, Roon excludes some functions that would be awkward to use on smaller screens. For example, DSP Presets may be recalled from the smartphone app, but you’ll need a tablet or computer to adjust specific parametric EQ points. And convolution filter sets may only be uploaded from a computer. Once you’re familiar with Roon’s control surface, you’ll be at home with it across all your devices. However, don’t be surprised to find a few minor differences in functionality as you move from one to the next.
The goal of Roon’s tabloid-like interface is to encourage exploration and discovery. As such, it intentionally eschews convenience features like voice commands in favor of a more engaged style of personal interaction.
Many (inequal) Playback Systems
Roon may be able to send music to most devices in your home, but be aware that not all devices in the Roon ecosystem are equal. If you’re purchasing a networked audio component for use with Roon, focus on those certified as Roon Ready. These offer the most complete integrations. For example, when you change the volume on the device, that change is accurately reflected on all Roon control apps. The reverse is also true; changes made via Roon are displayed correctly on the device. Clicking “Play” in Roon causes the device to switch to the Roon input. These are little things, but they make the experience friendlier, especially for non-technical family members and guests.
Roon offers limited support for devices that do not speak its native RAAT (Roon Advanced Audio Transport) protocol. Examples include Google Chromecast, SONOS®, Apple AirPlay, Logitech Squeezebox, and Signalyst NAA (Network Audio Adapters). Bluetooth, DLNA, DTS PlayFi, and Denon HEOS are not supported by Roon. Still, systems with standard digital audio inputs, like S/PDIF and USB, may be integrated with Roon by adding relatively expensive bridge devices. While Roon can control a wide variety of devices, adapting as many as possible to use Roon’s native RAAT protocol will result in the best experience and fewest surprises for you and other household members.
Roon is used to present an enhanced abstract view of your music library, enriched with cloud metadata and art. It enables each household member to discover and play the music they enjoy to devices of varying capabilities throughout the home.